The career you decide on as a teenager is often a logical follow-on from what one or both your parents did or what they were interested in. There are cases when parents are disappointed that their children don’t follow their career footsteps, no matter how much they try to cajole them. Musicians beget musicians, lawyers, beget lawyers and of course artists beget artists. The father, mother and godfather of the painter featured in my blog today were all artists and so one should not be surprised to find that their sons became interested in all things artistic. Of course to be interested in art and be good at art are two completely different things but my featured painter today was one of France’s most talented 18th century historical painter and portraitist. He was Jean-Marc Nattier.
Nattier was born in Paris in March 1685. He was the second son of Marc Nattier a portrait painter and Marie Nattier (née Courtois) who was a miniaturist. His father and his godfather were his first art tutors. His godfather was Jean Jouvenet, a history painter, who specialised in religious scenes. When he was fifteen years of age his father arranged for him to enrol in the drawing classes at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture of Paris and soon the establishment recognised the artistic talent of Jean-Marc for in 1700 he was awarded the Premier Prix de Dessin.
Nattier’s father had a royal licence to reproduce Rubens’s famous cycle of paintings known as the History of Marie de’ Medici, which was, at that time, housed in the Le Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg, Paris. It is now housed in the Louvre. Before he died, he arranged for the licence to be taken over by Jean-Marc and his brother, another artist, Jean-Baptiste Nattier. Nattier and his brother spent much time making drawings of this cycle of paintings. The cycle consisted of twenty four monumental allegorical paintings of the French dowager Queen by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens who began painting them in 1622 and which took him two years to complete. It was a set of narrative paintings, commissioned by Maria de’ Medici, the widow of Henry IV of France, who, on her husband’s death, took control of the country until their thirteen year old son Louis XIII reached the age of thirteen. Twenty-one of these works tell the story of her life, her struggles and triumphs as a widow, mother and ruler. The other three paintings were portraits of her and her parents, Francesco I de’ Medici the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Joanna, Archduchess of Austria. It was presumably in her mind that such a set of paintings about her would immortalize her in French history. Jean-MarcNattier, over time, made a series of drawings of this cycle of paintings which were turned into engravings by the leading engravers of the time. The drawings appeared in 1710 under the title La Galerie du Palais du Luxembourg and proved extremely popular. Jean-Marc Nattier’s artistic ability was now recognised.
Through the good auspices of his uncle, Jean Jouvenet, Jean-Marc Nattier was offered the chance to visit Rome and study at the prestigious Académie de France à Rome. Unlike his elder brother, John-Baptiste, however, he declined the offer and instead of heading to Italy, remained in Paris to further his career.
In 1717, Nattier, at the age of thirty-two, travelled to Amsterdam where he was commissioned to paint portraits of the visiting Russian Tsar, Peter the Great and his second wife, the Tsarina, Catherine. Both portraits are housed at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
The Tsar, obviously pleased with the portraits then commissioned Nattier to produce two historical paintings depicting the 1709 Battle of Poltava and the 1708 Battle of Lesnaya, two of the major conflicts between Russia and Sweden in the Great Northern War which he completed in 1717.
The Tsar was delighted with the history paintings and invited him to come to Russia and work at the Russian court but the Frenchman declined the offer and returned to the French capital. Nattier remained in Paris for the rest of his life .
Nattier’s work between 1715 and 1720 focused on historical paintings such as his Great Northern War paintings (above) and he was received into the Académie Royale as a history painter on the strength of these works and in particular one he completed in 1718 entitled Perseus Petrifies Phineas and his Companions with the head of Medusa. The painting is based on Book V of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which tells the tale of Andromeda, who was betrothed to her uncle, Phineas, until Perseus rescued her from the sea monster, Cetus, and in return for saving her life she agreed to marry him instead. At their wedding celebrations Phineas and his followers burst in and attacked Perseus and the wedding guests. Andromeda came to his aid but he was heavily outnumbered. Perseus then unveils his ultimate weapon, the severed head of the gorgon, Medusa, that petrifies all those who look at it. Perseus thus transforms all his attackers into statues and utters the words to Phineas:
“…You shall not suffer by the sword. Rather I will cause you to be an enduring monument through the ages and you will always be seen in my father-in-laws palace, so that my wife may find solace in the statue of her intended…”
Phineas tried to avert his eyes but it was too late. His neck hardened, the tears on his cheek were turned to stone and he was turned into marble. In Nattier’s painting we see the intruders on the left already turned to stone whilst those in the right foreground try to avert their eyes from the Medusa’s severed head which is being held aloft by Perseus. Throughout the painting we see the bright flashes of highly polished armour. There are also the gleaming silver salvers and decorative pitchers which lie on the floor in the foreground that were being used for the wedding feast. These random reflections catch our eye and have our gaze dart around the painting. This attention-dispersing effect is known as the papillotage.
Nattier’s was forced to move from historical paintings to the more lucrative genre of portraiture around 1720 when he, and numerous French citizens, lost most of their money they had invested in the government’s Mississippi Company, set up by Louis XIV’s financial adviser, the Scotsman, John Law. The collapse of the company became known as the Mississippi Bubble. Nattier was in a state of financial ruin and urgently needed to recoup his lost money and the most lucrative art genre was portraiture, although this form of art came low down in the academic hierarchy of genres. Artists of the time who made money from their portraiture were frowned upon by the art establishment who considered that the portraitists had lost all artistic credibility. Nattier was loathed to give up on his favoured genre of history painting, which he knew the art academies of 17th century Europe considered the highest intellectual achievement for an artist. He was extremely unhappy that he was about to sell his soul for the financial gain of portraiture but “needs must”. However to retain some artistic credibility he decided that his portraiture would revive the genre of allegorical portraiture and by depicting his sitters as characters from Greek and Roman mythology, history or biblical tales then he was not completely abandoning history painting. Initially his portraiture clientele came from the Parisian bourgeoise but later in the 1730’s he began to work on portraits of the ladies of the Royal court and in the 1740’s he was commissioned to paint portraits of the Royal family of Louis XV.
Females liked this type of portraiture as artists could then depict them in roles outside their normally constrained and often boring professions, and elevate their status to that of Goddesses. Nattier realised that with a little help from props and artificial settings the finished painting moved a tad closer to the much vaunted and more credible history painting genre. His finished works pleased the female courtiers as besides elevating them to the status of Goddesses he would cleverly beautify his sitters without losing their true likeness. Examples of this allegorical portraiture can be seen in his 1742 painting entitled Henriette of France as Flora. The painting had been commissioned by Henriette’s mother, Maria Leczinska, the wife of Louis XV. Nattier had transposed the princess into the mythological figure of the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring, Flora.
Three years later in 1745 he completed another allegorical portrait for Maria Leczinska. This time it was a portrait of another of her daughters, Marie Adelaide, which was entitled Marie Adelaide of France as Diana. Diana was the Roman goddess of hunting and in the painting we see Marie Adelaide sitting on the ground, one hand wrapped around her bow whilst the other hand withdraws an arrow from its quiver. Both the paintings of Louis XV’s daughters can now be seen at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
In 1748 Nattier received a commission to paint Louis XV’s wife, Maria Leszczynska, who was the daughter of the former King of Poland. Louis and Maria’s marriage was an arranged one and fifteen year old Louis and twenty-one year old Maria met for the first time on the eve of their wedding. It started off as a very happy marriage and the couple went on to have ten children. There were complications with the birth of the last child, Princess Louise, in 1737 and from that time on the couples sex life was at an end and they slept in separate rooms. It was around this juncture in their married life that Louis began to have a series of love affairs including his famous one with Madame de Pompadour. The portrait by Nattier of the Queen was a change of portraiture style. This was not the usual allegorical portrait that he had been carrying out over the last twenty years, but a simple depiction of a forty-five year old married woman. Marie had asked that she be depicted in habit de ville (day dress). She wanted simplicity and that is exactly what Nattier gave her. We see her seated with her left hand on top of an open bible which makes us aware of her strong religious beliefs. She looks relaxed and at ease with herself. She was a homely-type of person and Nattier has depicted her just so. There is a natural quality about this work which must have pleased the queen.
Jean-Marc Nattier had married Marie-Madeleine de la Roche in 1724 and the couple went on to have four children, one of whom, Marie, married Louis Tocqué in 1747. Tocqué who was only ten years younger than his father-in-law and had at one time been a student of his and they were colleagues at the Académie Royale. Louis Tocqué and Jean-Marc Nattier were two of the most celebrated portraitists of the 18th century.
Nattier completed a family portrait of himself, his wife and their four children which depicts them well dressed and quite affluent looking. The painting would have been from the 1730’s when Nattier had started to recover from his financial losses a decade before.
Jean-Marc Nattier’s health deteriorated in 1762 and he was forced to stop painting. The popularity of his work had started to wane in the last decade of his life and he died a poor man.
Jean-Marc Nattier died in Paris in November 1766, aged 81.